Guess whos in the used car business now Local Jewish groups eye cash

On a bright Sunday morning near one of San Francisco's industrial piers, an auctioneer stands in a lot filled with 120 used cars, trucks and motorcycles.

A maroon 1988 Oldsmobile Royale Coupe pulls up in front of the auctioneer. More than 100 potential buyers circle the car, and the rapid-fire bidding begins at Jewish Educational Center's weekly auction.

Within three minutes, the Oldsmobile sells for $625. Car after car follows, going for anywhere from $75 to $1,900.

Welcome to the world of used-car solicitations and sales — one of the latest gimmicks that charities use to raise money, and one of the newest ways that donors can earn tax deductions.

Since the early 1990s, at least a dozen charities have begun advertising on Bay Area radio stations to ask for used vehicles. Among them are three S.F.-based Jewish nonprofit groups: Jewish Educational Center, Hebrew Academy and Chabad.

"It's becoming a big business," Hebrew Academy dean Rabbi Pinchas Lipner said. "I wish we would have done it a long time ago…It's profitable. It's a money-maker. It has tremendous potential."

Of the three, Jewish Educational Center's campaign is considered the most aggressive and successful so far. Since it began running radio ads in December 1993, JEC has grown from a small, relatively unknown Chassidic group into a solicitation powerhouse.

JEC executive director Mattie Pil describes the used-car solicitations as a "huge competition."

Vying for donors apparently breeds secrecy, however. Neither JEC nor Hebrew Academy would disclose exactly how many cars they have taken in — nor are they legally required to do so. Pil would only estimate that JEC has brought in at least a couple of thousand cars in the Bay Area using radio ads.

Chabad's Rabbi Yosef Langer said his ads bring in about 200 cars per month.

According to Pil, about half JEC's donated cars go directly to emigres from the former Soviet Union and to other needy families. Of those cars, about half are given to emigres at no cost, and about half are first repaired by mechanics and sold on a sliding scale –a few hundred dollars on average — to emigres.

The rest of the cars are sold at JEC's weekly public auctions on a lot south of the Bay Bridge in San Francisco's China Basin, and more recently in the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds as well.

Revenue from the auctions finances operating costs and scholarships for programs under JEC's umbrella, said Rabbi Bentzion Pil, who runs the organization with his wife, Mattie. Those programs include Beth Aharon Day School, which has about 60 students in preschool through fifth grade, and its summertime Chai Day Camp.

JEC also offers religious classes in Russian and conducts ceremonies such as weddings and eulogies in that language.

In addition, JEC brought 12 boys to San Francisco from the former Soviet Union this summer to study for a year and receive medical treatment for possible radiation exposure from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident.

Besides financing some of JEC's activities, the Pils use the car solicitation as a way to provide jobs to emigres. Thirty emigres have trained as mechanics, office workers and teacher aides through JEC over the past year, Mattie Pil said.

JEC also has the long-term goals of building a synagogue and a larger school.

The growing popularity of car donations as a fund-raiser for Jewish groups is rooted in Bentzion Pil's decision to take out a loan in December 1993 and ask for cars over the airwaves.

"This was a brainstorm," Mattie Pil said.

JEC continues to advertise on a rotating basis on half a dozen Bay Area radio stations. But this fund-raising method isn't cheap. JEC marketing director George Youngerman said an average 60-second ad on KCBS costs $175.

The Pils run their own operation, hiring and overseeing telemarketers, clerical workers, tow-truck operators, mechanics and auctioneers. Most of the work is done out of a former realty office on Geary Boulevard in the outer Richmond District, where telemarketers are on the job around the clock– except Shabbat and holidays. JEC also works out of an auto garage and the auction lots.

The Pils have expanded the operation this year, running radio ads and auctions in the Los Angeles, San Diego and New York areas.

"After we saw success, we decided to open nationwide," Bentzion Pil said. He hopes to expand soon to New Jersey and eventually to every U.S. city with a large Jewish population.

Until a few weeks ago, the cars donated outside the Bay Area weren't going to emigres but were only covering operating costs. Mattie Pil said that a few cars are now going to emigres in the Los Angeles area and that more and more cars will go to emigres outside the Bay Area as the operation grows.

The Pils manage all of it from San Francisco, through a toll-free number, faxes and airline flights.

Hebrew Academy and Chabad also began running radio ads asking for used cars last fall, but their operations aren't nearly as intricate as JEC's. These two organizations sell the donated vehicles through local used-car dealers.

Besides the three local Jewish groups that use radio ads, other Jewish organizations that rely largely on word of mouth for advertising also welcome cars.

Jewish Family and Children's Services agencies based in San Francisco and in Berkeley, as well as Jewish Family Service of Santa Clara County, don't advertise on the radio but accept cars in working condition for emigres. None of the vehicles donated to those three agencies is sold.

Gayle Zahler, director of the S.F.-based JFCS resettlement program, said new immigrants need the transportation primarily to find and keep jobs, particularly when the work is located outside the city.

Igor Kotlyar can attest to the need for a car. He arrived in San Francisco about 1-1/2 years ago from Odessa, Ukraine, where he was a refrigeration mechanic.

In December, he began training as a plumber with Rescue Rooter in Daly City. He had to catch four buses to get there, and sometimes the trip could take up to three hours. Because the job would require him to be on-call for emergencies, Kotlyar needed a car. But he had no money to buy one.

Kotlyar applied to the S.F.-based JFCS for a car and in February got a 1987 Volkswagen Jetta with 61,000 miles — at no cost except for registration and insurance. "It's a very nice car, very good condition," Kotlyar said. "Without a car, I couldn't come to the job."

Although the cars brought in by Chabad and Hebrew Academy don't go directly to emigres, Langer and Lipner said the proceeds still help Jewish immigrants indirectly.

Chabad uses the money for local activities, such as Bill Graham Menorah Day, and for the Israel-based Children of Chernobyl project that offers medical treatment to young immigrants in Israel who suffer from radiation poisoning.

Hebrew Academy, a preschool to 12th grade Orthodox day school, uses its proceeds to finance scholarships. About 200 of the school's 300 students are emigres whose families usually cannot afford full tuition, Lipner said.

Despite their talk about the benefits of used-car solicitation, Lipner, Langer and Pil said there are other reasons they turned to this type of fund-raising.

Langer and Pil, whose organizations receive no money from the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, at least partly blame a lack of support from the organized Jewish community for their decision to turn to such fund-raising.

"There is open discrimination against Russian Jews and Orthodox Jews in the federation," Pil said.

Federation executive vice president Wayne Feinstein declined to comment.

Like the others, Lipner said he turned to used cars as a fund-raiser because the organized Jewish community doesn't offer enough financial support. Hebrew Academy does receive federation money but has lost $280,000 from the federation and other local sources during the past two years, he said.

Though Lipner called the used-car operation a valuable fund-raising tool, he still is ambivalent about relying on such a method.

"It's a shame we were forced to get into fund-raising in a way that's not necessarily prestigious. But we're committed to saving every Jewish child we can from assimilation," Lipner said. "Unfortunately, we have become used-car salespeople…I didn't go to yeshiva for that."